The Women’s Pac-10 Championship almost serves in-and-of itself as a National Championship preview of sorts, with 4 out of the top 7-ranked teams in the country hailing from out west. At the same time, the key to previewing a meet like this is the very delicate process of separating expectations about this meet from those about the NCAA Championships. Any one of these four teams at the top (Stanford, Cal, USC, and Arizona) has a shot at an NCAA title, but they are not all necessarily built well for a Pac-10 Championship.
For example, at Pac-10’s, two 49.0 100 freestyles outscore a 48.0 100 freestyle. At NCAA’s they do not. Arizona, for example, is not a great Pac-10 team this year. They lost a ton of swimmers to graduation, and though they’ve had quite a few freshmen, like Margo Geer and Sarah Denninghoff, step up with big performances for them, they haven’t really made up the depth that they lost when they graduated 10 NCAA-scoring swimmers. But with top swimmers like Geer, Alyssa Anderson, and Ellyn Baumgardner still in their stable, they will fare very well at NCAA’s despite.
With that in mind, Stanford is the defending champions of these meet, after beating runners-up Cal by about 150, and third-place USC by around 200. The Cardinal lost two of the best swimmers in the elite, storied history of Stanford swimming: Elaine Breeden and Julia Smit. The latter set two NCAA records as a senior (in textile), and was an absolute anchor on relays. But in addition to graduating an incredibly good class, they also brought one in that adds both immediate firepower and depth to the roster. We knew Felicia Lee was going to be very good for them, but I think that everybody was caught at least a little off-guard by how far Maya DiRado and Andi Taylor have come in their short time in Palo Alto. That three-headed monster has become so good (in the same exact events that Stanford turned over when Breeden and Smit left) that at the Pac-10 level, they might actually outscore what left!
Cal is still a bit of a mystery to me. Caitlin Leverenz has obviously put things in another gear during her sophomore season, and has already gone a time in the 200 breast that makes her the third-fastest in history. They’ve also got two very good sprinters, Liv Jensen and Hannah Wilson, who haven’t shown their best this season, but were among the best 1-2 combinations in the country last year. Amanda Sims has the potential to do some very good things in the butterfly events. Their freshmen 100-200 backstroke complements of Cindy Tran and Deborah Roth have been very good for them. But the rest of their roster is a bit of a mystery, and that makes me nervous about their depth.
But here’s the curveball for those of you who breeze through the collegiate regular season: Cal dominated both USC and Arizona and also knocked-off Stanford last weekend by a slim 10 points. This is a team that always shows up for Championship season.
USC is the wildcard at this meet. They hardly lost any contributing swimmers, and literally didn’t lose a single scoring member of their NCAA team. They have a top two seed in all but three of the 16 individual events (including diving), and I don’t think it would surprise anyone if they won a dozen or more events. Obviusly, USC has many, many big names but the two biggest will be Katinka Hosszu and Kasey Carlson. USC’s weakest discipline is the sprint freestyles, and Hosszu will hold down that spot on their medley relays. Carlson, who was recruited as an already World-Class breaststroker, has perhaps given the Trojans their greatest boost in these sprint freestyles. She has Southern Cal’s best time this season in both the 50 and 100 freestyles.
So who’s going to win this one? Let the races begin….
USC has the single best diver in the conference in Tori Ishimatsu. She specializes in the springboard events, where she is expected to earn top honors in both, but should also pick up nice points in the platform. Amongst the contenders, USC is the clear favorite to win, but depth will help Stanford a lot. The other three programs will be very tightly clustered in the diving points. Stanford’s Meg Hostage, based on graduations, probably slots up into the top 4 or so divers in the conference. She has shown a ton of improvement, especially in the 1-meter. Arizona returns Ainsley Oliver, who should be a low-A finalist on both springboards, and also brought in a freshman named Samantha Pickens, who could A-final in the 1-meter as well.
Cal probably has a very strong quartet this year, though they’re all good at different events, so their four is probably similar to the other schools’ two in terms of points. Junior Molly Hayes is yet another 1-meter specialist in this conference, and will be one of a large group that will fight for third behind the two Trojans.
Overall, this is a very shallow year for the Pac-10 in diving. This plays into the hands of all schools not named USC, as it will prevent their two stars from pulling too far ahead of their main competitors. My guess would be about a 30-40 point advantage for the Trojans in the diving events, with Stanford sitting second, and Cal and Arizona very tight for third.
Races to Watch
100 yard breaststroke
The 100 yard breaststroke is going to be an incredible battle. It will have swimmers young and old, title contenders from three of the top-four teams, as well as some of the second-tier teams, and will be extremely tight. Ellyn Baumgardner of Arizona has the top seed time, at 59.58, but based on what she did last year, won’t be much faster than that until NCAA’s. She will be chased by a very tight grouping with 5 swimmers seeded within half-a-second of each other. This group includes Arizona State’s Rebecca Eidervik, USC’s Kasey Carlson, Arizona’s Chelsey Salli, Stanford’s Liz Smith, and UCLA’s Brittany Beauchan. There are a lot of opportunities for swimmers to both pick up big points in team scoring, as well as lose big points in the team scoring. Cal’s Caitlin Leverenz is currently entered in four events, and though at NCAA’s, she’s unlikely to compete in the 100 breast, Cal might need her points too badly for her to sit out. This would instantly add another contender into the mix.
400 individual medley
Really, either of the IM’s are races to watch at Pac-10’s. Despite four out of the six “BCS” conferences having already run their conference championships, the Pac-10 still features 6 out of the top 9 swimmers in the country in this event. Five of those six (excluding USC’s Lyndsay DePaul) will probably be in this race. The head of this group will be USC’s Katinka Hosszu, who is the best in the country this year at 4:00.03. She will be chased by Cal’s Caitlin Leverenz (4:05.04), who is a two-time USA-Swimming National Champion in this race, and three of the most talented freshmen in the country: teammate Stina Gardell (4:03.89) and Stanford foes Andi Taylor and Maya DiRado. Better yet, each swimmer has different specialties. Hosszu is a butterflier; DiRado is a backstroker; Gardell and Leverenz are breaststrokers; and Taylor is mostly a freestyler. That sets up for a lot of great strategy and drama.
50 yard freestyle
Last year, it took better than a 22.51 to place in the top 18 (finalists plus alternates) at NCAA’s in this event. This year, the Pac-10 alone has nine swimmers who have gone a 22.51 or faster before they even hit their conference championship tapers. Translation: If you want to be top 8 in this event at Pac-10’s, you better not fall asleep in prelims. The top seed is Arizona freshman Margo Geer, who has surprised some with how fast she has been. Her 22.16 was tied for the fastest time in the country
200 yard medley relay
Thinking about the first three legs of USC’s medley relay (Presley Bard, Kasey Carlson, and Lyndsay DePaul) gives me goosebumps. That’s two potential sprint National Champions in their strokes, and Carlson who has a very good shot at top 3. The question is who will come through for them on the anchor leg. Their two best sprint freestylers will be entered on other legs. Hosszu will sit this relay out. It’s a good possibility that they switch things up a little and let Carlson swim the freestyle leg and insert Jessica Schmitt into the breaststroke. Either way, this is going to be an extremely fast relay. But you can never sleep on Arizona. Wildcats assistant Augie Busch told me earlier this year that he expected the Arizona free relays to be stronger than ever, maybe even eclipsing their legendary medleys this season. But still, thanks to Margo Geer and Sarah Denninghoff, this medley is still one of the best in the country, even though they graduated all four members of the National Championship group from last season. And there’s still Cal, who has already gone a 1:36.7 this season. What a race this will be. It will ultimately probably be irrelevant in the team standings, but this meet is going to start with an absolute bang in this race, and this will keep the pool buzzing.
Stanford added as many points as they lost, and are a very deep team. I’m not ready to decide how these four teams will finish at NCAA’s, but the Stanford women should be the victors at the conference level. After that, I think that USC, with their diving and incredible strength at the top, will have just enough depth in events like the IM’s and flys to snatch second.
A positive sign for Cal as a team will be if Sara Isakovic, who has been good but not great since winning an Olympic silver medal in the 200 free in Beijing, can break through and steal a title in the 200 free or possibly even the 200 fly. Right now, they look good for third, with an eye towards bigger things at NCAA’s.
1. Stanford Cardinal
2. USC Trojans
3. Cal Golden Bears
4. Arizona Wildcats
5. UCLA Bruins
6. Arizona State Sun Devils
7. Washington State Cougars
8. Oregon State Beavers